8. Romantic Landscapes
When Peter drifts back into consciousness after his parachute-less plunge from the bomber’s cockpit, he finds himself on a wide expanse of sand, with the waves which have washed him ashore creating long, successive overlaps of undulant lines when seen from above. Naturally, he believes himself to be in the afterlife. In fact, he is on Saunton Sands in North Devon, which locals may always have suspected was a gateway to paradise. In a haunting scene, Peter, having divested himself of the more cumbersome of his earthly garments and walked up to the dunes in bare feet, comes across a naked goatherd playing an ethereal melody on his flute (the Phrygian mode?) ‘I always hoped there’d be dogs’, he says, as the boy’s Labrador runs up to see him. The atmosphere of some kind of Elysium is created before a plane roaring overhead shatters the idyll. And yet the feeling remains that such landscapes breathe of a heavenly air, an English Romantic paradise. As Peter runs down the dunes to the boardwalk and greets June as if they were already lovers, we feel that such full-blooded emotions are a natural extension of such wild, elemental surroundings.
They would seem more of an aberration in the cool, distanced spatial order of the monochrome heavenly world above. Trubshaw gamely tries it on with Kathleen Byron’s angelic receptionist during the trial sequence, but you sense that he’s never going to get past first post, and he is soon distracted by the cricket commentary which drives everyone else mad with boredom. The contrast of English Romanticism and heavenly modernist distance is also symbolically shown in the transition of Conductor 71’s rose from black and white into heightened, painterly Technicolor (and later, freighted with June’s precious tear, back again). Conductor 71 is an unabashed romantic in the French mould and will later help Peter’s case in the name of l’amour. His first meeting with Peter takes place in a bower of flowering rhododendrons. At this point, however, he is too concerned with the possible repercussions to his position resulting from his error to allow his mistily sentimental romantic side to take the upper hand, although he does dreamily sigh ‘exquise’ at the sight of June’s frozen form. Nevertheless, Peter senses some sort of affinity when he says, just prior to the Conductor’s departure, ‘you know, I think you’re not a bad chap’.
The English landscape can also be seen from the perspective of Dr Reeves’ hair-raisingly authentic motorcycle rides through the countryside. As his bike threads the lanes bracketed with hedgerows and overhung with oak and beech boughs, we feel the sheer exhilaration of being out in the open air. These English landscapes are contrasted with the European Romantic sublime of heaven, monumental landscapes which inspire awe and even terror and against which human scale is dwarfed. Perhaps an appeal for a more tempered modernism on a human scale is being sought. The kind of modernism which A Matter of Life and Death’s costume designer Hein Heckroth experienced during his time teaching at Dartington Arts College, with its classic 30s white-walled buildings such as High Cross House, designed by William Lescaze, set against the rolling hills of the Dart valley and the wild backdrop of the moor. Modernism and romanticism combined.